Writing what you know
Writing what you know

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Writing what you know

1 Writing what you know

1.1 Using life experiences in your fiction

Creative writing courses and manuals often offer the advice ‘write what you know’. This is undoubtedly good advice, yet what exactly does it mean? Many writers testify to using their life experiences – their memories and their everyday perceptions – as a source for their fiction or poetry, as well as for their autobiographies and memoirs. Yet these experiences aren't necessarily extraordinary in themselves. You don't have to have led an unusual or exotic life in order to write. You do, however, need to raise your level of perception above the ordinary. Writing what you know means being aware of your own world, both past and present, in as full a way as possible.

This course will introduce and briefly elaborate on some of the ways in which you might ‘know’ the world around you. By looking at the commonplace details of your life in a different way, using your sensory perceptions and learning to use your own memories, you will be exercising certain writing muscles, ones that need regular flexing. In this way you may discover you know more than you thought.

Activity 1

Write down a quick sentence in response to the advice ‘write what you know’. What does it immediately suggest to you?

Discussion

You may react positively to such advice; you may be able to go off happily and make use of every last ounce of your life experience, without doubt or consternation. Or you may think: ‘I don't know anything’; ‘all that I know is boring’; ‘nobody would want to know what I know’ or ‘I know too much, how could I possibly get that down in words?’

Whatever your response, the aim of this course is to broaden the meaning of such advice, so it will act as a prompt the next time you hear it, reminding you that you have numerous ways of exploiting the raw materials of your own life.

Activity 2

The purpose of this activity is to provide you with an example of how a known writer has exploited his everyday knowledge and memories in his work. Clicking on the link below will allow you to listen to an extract of an interview with Andrew Cowan, a writer and senior lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Below is some background information you may find of interest.

Pig was Andrew Cowan’s first novel, and it won numerous awards, including the Betty Trask Award and the Sunday Times ‘Young Writer of the Year Award’. Published in 1994, its meticulous realism received great critical acclaim. The novel has obvious connections to Cowan’s own background – it has a Scottish grandfather and is set in a new town in decline very similar to Corby, Cowan’s hometown. He has subsequently published two other novels and at the time of the interview his fourth novel, What I Know, was about to be published. The novels discussed in the interview are Pig (1994), Common Ground (1996) and Crustaceans (2000).

Pig

When his grandmother dies and his grandfather goes into a home, teenager Danny is determined to look after their elderly pig. He and his girlfriend, Surinder secretly meet at the grandparents’ house, enjoying a fragile summer idyll, a refuge from the racist neighbours and family members, brief respite from the blighted new town in which they live.

Common Ground

Ashley, a disillusioned geography teacher, chronicles the birth of his daughter, Maggie, in letters to his globe-trotting brother, Douglas. Painting an intimate picture of his relationship with his partner, Jay, the novel offers a bleak picture of inner city life, and the couple’s growing need for some sort of political involvement. It comes in the form of the road-protest movement: the novel also charts the controversial birth of a road and the campaign to save the nearby Hogslea Common.

Crustaceans

Set on one day – 22nd December, which would have been his dead son Euan’s sixth birthday – Paul drives to the coast, as thick snow lies on the ground. Talking to the imaginary Euan in the back of the car, he tells him the story of his birth, of his first words, and of Paul’s relationship with Ruth, Euan’s mother. He also tells the story of his own parents, including the unexplained death of his mother when he was a child.

Some questions to think about while you listen:

  • How did the idea for Cowan’s second novel, Common Ground, come about?

  • What parts of Pigwere imagined, what parts researched and what parts autobiographical?

  • How does Cowan use everyday details in his novels?

Cowan, Andrew (1994) Pig, London: Sceptre.

Cowan, Andrew (1996) Common Ground, London: Penguin.

Cowan, Andrew (2000) Crustaceans, London: Sceptre.

Cowan, Andrew (2005) What I Know, London: Sceptre.

Click below to listen to an inroduction to Andrew Cowan.

Download this audio clip.
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Transcript: An introduction to Andrew Cowan

Derek Neale
Andrew Cowan’s novels are distinguished by a meticulous attention to detail and a highly realistic range of characters and events. I met up with Andrew at the BBC studios in Norwich where we talked about his novels Pig, Common Ground and Crustaceans. I was intrigued about the evolution of his stories, how he plans or structures time and how he achieves his particular brand of realism.
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Click below to listen to an interview with Andrew Cowan.

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Transcript: An interview with Andrew Cowan

Andrew Cowan
It was the pig that woke my grandfather on the morning gran died. It was squealing outside in the garden. The noise didn’t wake him at once but crept into his sleep and brought on a dream. He dreamt he was back home in Glasgow in a slaughter house where he first worked beside gran. They were children then, barely into their teens but in his dream they were already old, shrunken and wrinkled, twice the age of their parents. Grandad was trying to butcher a pig. He struck repeatedly on the back of it’s skull with a maul but the animal was stubborn and refused to buckle beneath him.
Each of my books is different. Pig is the miraculous one and it came to me entire. It just arrived. The beginning of the story, the middle and the end were all there from the very beginning.
Derek Neale
Well that raises the question, if it was known already, how did it interest you as you were writing it?
Andrew Cowan
I say it’s known; it’s a glimmer. If I actually knew it entire there would be absolutely no reason to put it down on paper. I think every writer writes in order to find out what it is they’re trying to say. Every book is a kind of journey of exploration where you are looking for the words which will give form to the glimmer. I’ve done more and more research as I’ve gone on. Pig I was a little bit blithe and I just set off to tell the story and it was going to be about a pig and I’d never met a pig. I didn’t know the first thing about pigs so I took one book out of the library and read it and I accumulated one sheet of A4 of useful information about pigs, such as it takes exactly three months, three weeks and three days for a sow to produce the piglets and that a boar’s tackle is corkscrew-shaped.
These kinds of things were interesting so I wrote those down but they, so I drew on my memories of having dogs when I was a child so the pig in Pig is really a description of my collie dogs when I was a boy. At one point I did realise I knew nothing about the boiling of swill or the regulations concerning that and I wrote to the Strathclyde veterinary authority to ask them if it was illegal to boil swill or not. I was living in a third-floor tenement flat in the heart of Govan in Glasgow and they sent out the inspectors early in the morning because they thought I was a pig rustler because a certain number of pigs had gone missing in Renfrewshire and they suspected I must be keeping them in my tenement flat but I did find out from that experience how you boil pig swill.
I had the idea for Pig, I thought I knew what the story was beginning to end, actually finding the words was desperately hard and it took six years to write and it was stop-start. I would lose interest, go away and come back to it but I also found other ways to make the tedium, the difficulty, the familiarity bearable and one of those strategies was to write very long letters to friends and another one was to keep journals, recording things I could see from my front window. I was living in Glasgow at the time, in a very rough neighbourhood. Things that were happening in the school where I worked at the time, it was my first proper job, everything was new to me, therefore interesting, so I was recording that. My partner was pregnant so I was recording the journey through to childbirth and beyond.
The first year of my daughter’s life was all recorded in a journal so I was actually writing journals in preference to writing Pig and I was writing long letters to a friend in preference to writing Pig. When Pig was finished I had this idea of putting together those journals, journey towards a birth and those letters which were mostly written to a friend who was on a journey round the globe. At the same time I was keeping newspaper clippings thinking ‘Oh that might make a good story, that might make a good piece of material to feed into a novel.’ When Pig was finished I found I’d collected an awful lot of material about New Age travellers and their protest against the building of roads through protected sites, protected woodlands and the like so that became part of the story of Common Ground. I have a common which is being fought over by developers on the one hand and these New Age types on the other, amongst the New Age types is a couple who are making a journey towards the birth so all these things feed in.
Derek Neale
Interestingly the way you describe the writing of Pig there, it is like a process of procrastination or putting off. You’re writing other things instead of writing what you are supposed to be writing.
Andrew Cowan
With Pig there was an awful lot of work avoidance, an awful lot of nest circling but that’s become my habit, that’s my way of working. I can’t settle down to work until I’ve first of all cleared every other possible distraction out of the way, so ironing, washing up, taking the dog for a walk, shopping, all these things are higher priorities to me than writing because I can’t possibly write if they’re nagging at me. I think the nest circling is a necessary part of the process, you’re doing it for a reason and if you feel this desperate urgency not to write but to go shopping it’s probably because the story, your unconscious, whatever it is which is going to produce this story needs time. It needs to gestate, it needs to cook at the back of your mind, so all this moving around is actually productive and fruitful. It’s not time wasting so I am an advocate of staring out of the window, I think you should.
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